Mailbag: Neandertal hirsuteness21 Jan 2011
Re: Neandertal merkins:
Some reconstructions of our cousins are really hairy, and others (like the one in your post today) are not so hairy. How do we know where Neanderthals had hair and thick it was? I dimly recall a study(s) of human male facial hair patterns featuring gray/white/dark color contrasts with the implication that these influenced fitness by intimidating other males and signaling ones fitness to females. Arent hair patterns genetically determined? Could genomics answer this question?
I think we have a good chance of figuring this out with genetic information. At the moment, we can’t predict hairiness in people from their genes. The missing information is about gene-phenotype associations. Once we have a good notion for how follicle action is controlled, we will be able to make some guesses.
I was consulting with an artist about this question earlier this week. As you probably imagine, they really want to make the best possible reconstructions. I think now that we know the Neandertals didn’t become extinct without issue, there is a tendency to want to make them basically within the range of humans for body hair. I’m not sure we need to believe that, but I would treat it as the null hypothesis, I guess.